• A Polish Awakening (2013)

A Polish Awakening

This essay was written for the BBC Proms Guide (2013), pp.30-35

Fifty years ago, the only Polish composer who was recognised as a world figure was Fryderyk Chopin.  Yet it was already beginning to dawn on performers, audiences and critics outside Poland that a new wave of composers was creating powerful new music.  Heading the list were Witold Lutosławski (1913-94), Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933) and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010).  This summer, the Proms celebrate the centenary of Lutosławski’s birth and the 80th birthdays of Penderecki and Górecki.  These three, alongside many others, including Andrzej Panufnik (whose centenary falls next year, but who left Poland in 1954), enriched the international concert repertoire in ways that were unthinkable when Lutosławski was born.  As regards the other major Polish composer of the last century, Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), it was only in the mid-1970s that his music began to achieve proper international attention.

proms_2013_h_300All of these composers were shaped by history.  There’s nothing unusual in that, of course, except that Polish history has been exceptionally turbulent.  For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, creativity across all art forms was thwarted or stifled by occupations, uprisings, wars, invasions and politics to a degree that composers in many other countries did not experience.  Composers struggled to get their voices heard.  Lutosławski endured more than most, yet he strove to maintain a measured distance from external pressures in order, as he said in 1980, ‘to preserve a clarity of expression’.  Chopin, on the other hand, as an exile in France, famously made his national heritage a central theme of his music and as such, rightly or wrongly, became emblematic of the Polish spirit.

Yet Polish music did not start nor end with Chopin.  During the Renaissance, Poland developed a vibrant musical culture as Kraków grew into a major European centre for trade and the arts.  Foreign musicians came to work in the Royal Court there and Polish musicians travelled and worked abroad freely.  This was a golden age in Polish culture and its music stands comparison with that elsewhere in Europe.  Despite this, the music of the Polish Renaissance (and Polish Baroque) is still far too little-known outside Poland, so this year’s Prom by the Huelgas Ensemble is a welcome opportunity to hear not only gems such as Chwała tobie, Gospodzinie (Praise to Thee, O Lord, c.1450) – the earliest-known polyphonic piece with a Polish text and dedicated to St Stanisław, the country’s patron saint – but also the music of foreign composers who came to work in Poland.

By the time of Lutosławski’s birth in 1913, such repertoire had long ceased to be a living presence in Polish culture. Indeed, it could be argued that Poland had not had a real cultural identity since it had been partitioned and occupied at the end of the 18th century.  The exiled Chopin was revered and sentimentalised after his death in 1849 but, with the exception of composer-virtuosos like the violinist Henryk Wieniawski and the pianists Juliusz Zarębski and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Poland had no cultural profile abroad.  Thanks to recent initiatives by (largely British) independent record companies, some of the veil is being lifted on the forgotten Polish music of the second half of the 19th century.  But when Szymanowski was a student at the turn of the 20th century, he found little in Warsaw to inspire him and sought inspiration elsewhere, initially in the German avant-garde (Richard Strauss), then in French music (Debussy and Ravel) and Mediterranean and near-Eastern culture.

During the First World War, Szymanowski sought refuge from the turmoil around him through exoticism, inspired by the Persian mystic Rumi (in Symphony no.3,  ‘Song of the Night’, 1914-16) and the fantastical poetry of his friend Tadeusz Miciński (in Violin Concerto no.1, 1916).  Only after Poland regained independence as a nation state in 1918 did Szymanowski seek to ground his music in his native soil.  This was a deliberate act of solidarity with the new Poland and he set out to establish a Polish musical identity that was independent of German culture and free of the burden of history.  He recognised the dangers of isolationism, however, writing in 1920: ‘Let all streams springing from universal art mingle freely with ours’.  By the end of his life, Szymanowski had mingled German, French, Arabic and Polish cultures, among others, seeking the exotic wherever he looked.  En route he demonstrated to younger Polish composers that it was possible to find affinities with their native folk culture (‘a fertilising agent’) and at the same time create fresh and vigorous music, far from what he once derided as ‘the blood-clotted spectre of a polonaise or a mazurka’.  Yet, for many composers of the following generation, this already felt out-of-date and, like Szymanowski 30 years earlier, they looked abroad for inspiration.

Szymanowski died before the Second World War, just as Lutosławski was writing his first major orchestral work, the Symphonic Variations (1936-8).  This sparkling piece looks towards Stravinsky and French neoclassicism, although there are still traces of Szymanowski’s sound-world.  Lutosławski was on the verge of travelling to Paris for further study in 1939 when external events intervened, not for the first time in his life.  (His father and uncle had been shot by the Bolsheviks in 1918, when Lutosławski was only 5, and one of his brothers would die in a Soviet concentration camp not long after the start of the Second World War.  He himself narrowly avoided being taken and executed in the street in Warsaw.)  For most of the war he and Panufnik survived by performing piano duets in the city’s cafés, making around 200 arrangements spanning Bach and Schubert to pre-war songs.  The only surviving piece from their duetting is one of Lutosławski’s most popular, the virtuosic Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941, taking the same theme as popularised by Rachmaninov), which he rearranged and expanded in 1978, giving it a glittering orchestration.

If Lutosławski’s instinctive artistic response was to sidestep the traumas of war, Panufnik was more interested in responding directly, as witnessed by his Tragic Overture (1942).  Its pervasive rhythmic pattern connects it with the BBC’s wartime ‘V for Victory’ Morse-code signal (or, more familiarly, with the characteristic rhythm that opens Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony).  The reactions of Lutosławski and Panufnik to the onset of political interference in the arts in post-war Poland were also different.  Panufnik, who had studied the scores of Anton Webern before the war, developed his motivically patterned music in ways which placed him at the forefront of young Polish composers.  Even though his rarely played Lullaby (1947) uses a Polish folk-tune, its artfully layered texture has a detached, refined quality that did not fit comfortably with the advancing Communist demands of down-to-earth socialist realism.

Lutosławski’s approach to folk music proved to be less decorative and more symphonic.  In his works of the early 1950s, culminating in the ever-popular Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54), Lutosławski fulfilled Szymanowski’s idea of folk music as a fertilising agent.  For the Concerto, he chose 11 folk tunes from several dozen that he had carefully selected and then worked them up into one of the great orchestral showpieces.  Although it is saturated with folk motifs, it somehow stands independent of its sources, while cannily going along with the socialist-realist demand for works that went from darkness to a new dawn, from conflict to resolution.  The premiere of the Concerto for Orchestra was given by the Warsaw Philharmonic, which includes it in its appearance this summer alongside Panufnik’s Tragic Overture and Lullaby, as it makes its Proms debut under its Principal Conductor, Antoni Wit.

No Polish composer in 1954 anticipated that, within a couple of years, such aesthetic and stylistic shackles would be cut away and that they would be more or less free to write what they wished.  In this new situation, Lutosławski was the most clear-sighted and focused on what in 1957 he called the ‘tumult’ of the contemporary avant-garde.  By 1963, when he turned 50, he was beginning to be recognised internationally and his ‘mature’ language already marked him out as a composer of great distinction.  His reputation remains undiminished today, primarily because he was able to match technique with expressivity, producing music that ranges from breathtaking delicacy to fierce immediacy.

Lutosławski long-standing connection with British musicians began when he met Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears at the 1961 ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival, which had kick-started Polish music five years earlier.  Lutosławski wrote Paroles tissées (1965) for Pears, who gave the premiere under the composer’s baton at the Aldeburgh Festival that year.  Five years later, Lutosławski completed his Cello Concerto, which had been commissioned by the Royal Philharmonic Society; its dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, gave the premiere in London in October 1970.  Lutosławski’s work with British orchestras proved to be long-standing, fruitful and much appreciated, not least by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with whom he made his last UK appearance on the podium during the 1993 Proms, when he conducted the UK premiere of his Fourth Symphony.

Whereas Paroles tissées inhabits a surrealist world (shades of Szymanowski), the Cello Concerto encapsulates the problems facing a Polish composer who insisted that there was no programmatic element in his work, just purely musical drama.  Rostropovich, however, immediately identified himself as the protagonist.  As far as he was concerned, his own struggles with Soviet authorities were paralleled in the cello’s conflict with the orchestra.  Try as he might, Lutosławski could not prevent others from seeing current history being reflected in some of his music.  When he came to write his Piano Concerto in 1987-88, he avoided confrontation in favour of a melodic, post-romantic fantasia that is marked, as ever, by clarity of expression.

Lutosławski was determined to pursue his own path with no obvious connections to Polish culture or history.  The next generation had other ideas.  Having gone through a much more dissonant and experimental trial by fire in the early 1960s, Penderecki and Górecki modified their language in the 1970s even more radically, like so many composers elsewhere.  So it was that Górecki wrote his modal, slow-moving Third Symphony ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ in 1976.  At the time, this was a shocking departure from the avant-garde.  Its connectivity with Polish history is evident in its incorporation of Polish Lenten hymns, a folk tune, quotes from Beethoven and Chopin, a folk text from the time of Silesian Uprisings after the Great War and a prayer etched on the wall of a Gestapo prison during the Second World War.  The links that others have since made between Górecki’s symphony and Auschwitz and the Holocaust are entirely spurious.  Herein lie the pitfalls of association that Lutosławski was so anxious to avoid.

Penderecki has built much of his compositional career on such external associations, especially from the memorialisation of victims of conflict.  Yet since the 1970s he has also pursued the path of abstraction through symphonies, concertos and chamber music as well as drawing stylistically and aesthetically on pre-20th-century music.  His Concerto Grosso (2000-01) for three cellos and orchestra embodies this retrospective trend.  If younger Polish composers do not emulate such moves, then they are simply following their own lights, just as Szymanowski, Lutosławski, Górecki and Penderecki did in their time.

© 2013 Adrian Thomas

Polish Music at the 2013 Proms

Prom 1 • 12 July
• Lutosławski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini

PCM 1 • 15 July
• Lutosławski: Partita

Prom 8 • 17 July
• Lutosławski: Cello Concerto

Prom 9 • 18 July
• Szymanowski: Symphony no.3 ‘Song of the Night’

PCM 2 • 22 July
• Polish and other European Renaissance Music

Prom 32 • 7 August
• Lutosławski: Symphonic Variations
• Lutosławski: Piano Concerto

Prom 44 • 15 August
• Penderecki: Concerto Grosso

Prom 55 • 23 August
• Lutosławski: Concerto for Orchestra
• Panufnik: Tragic Overture
• Panufnik: Lullaby

PSM 4 • 24 August
• Lutosławski: Paroles tissées

Prom 68 • 2 September
• Szymanowski: Violin Concerto no.1

Prom 71 • 4 September
• Górecki: Symphony no.3 ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’

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